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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #2: Valin's Choice


Valin could hear the bellows-rumble of Zefir's mechanical breath, straining as the bomber dragon flew higher. Clutching on to his Navigator's seat, while he pressed the multitude of buttons to vent excess heat from Zefir's brass pseudo-metallic skin, he heard the dragon's deep baritone through the microcog voice-hearing implant the Inventrix had designed but a day ago. That way they could hear one another over the rush of wind.

"Another thousand meters," Zefir insisted, his canvas-metal wings beating in syncopation with his thunderous clockwork heartbeat. His voice rang in Valin's head.

"Any higher and your diaphragm-ballonets will deflate too much."

Valin rechecked the gauges on his modified Navigator controls. By now, it felt like an extension of his own being to read the signs of the dragon's physical stressors, not just through the sensors and controls, but by the way Zefir timed his wing beats, the manner in which he arced his wings and the cooling-wire veins pulsated.

Below them, as no more than patchwork quilts, were the farmlands so near the Cog Clan's caves. Higher than they had ever flown.

"Five hundred meters," the dragon rumbled.

"No," Valin said sharply, knowing his tone would carry through the implant. "I know you want to test this maneuver—"

"Because we failed. We lost thirty ornithoper-dragons." Zefir didn't mention the Navigators they had lost. It was easier for the brass fellow to mention the ornithopters, as unlike himself, none of the thopter-bombers were created to be sentient. "Because there were too many ketch-gryphons from the Wheelteeth Clan for me to handle. They almost reached the caves."

Their home.

The high altitude winds made Valin's breath hitch, and what little skin was exposed from behind his flying mask and farviewing goggles stung like ten hells. "Level off."

"Only another," the dragon wheezed, "hundred meters."

Valin's readout indicated why Zefir could barely breathe. While he had never ordered the dragon to do anything, fear clawed into his throat and made him spit, "No! Level off now."

Zefir didn't respond. But his sides hitched, his wingbeats seized. Valin's controls blared out warnings—the shrill siren carved its noise into his skull. He felt them reach the apex of their arc before they began to spiral from the sky, falling—falling—falling—his insides in his mouth. He shouted to Zefir, but the dragon's glowing quicksilver eyes were lidded, that serpentine neck limp.

He tried to regain control, to re-inflate the diaphragm through his controls, but still the dragon was insensate.

The ground loomed close. So close. All Valin could think of was—not his own death—but whether or not the Inventrix could repair Zefir, his Zefir, when the dragon shattered upon the ground. Gods of techwork—metal and forge—he prayed it would be so.

The dragon's side finally heaved, like a man starving for breath. The limp wings unfurled, catching air and violently arresting their downward spiral. One of the pseudo-metal membranes of his wings tore; Zefir screamed, sucking in another desperate breath; his wings beat furiously at the air, his legs extended to counter their crash.

The dragon managed to level out, but the ground loomed. Upon impact, they slid, leaving great furrows in the soil, tumbling until Valin's head crashed into something. And everything went black.

#

The Inventrix eyed Valin's cracked flying helmet, studying it this way and that before tossing it over her shoulder, muttering about making a new one. Her graying hair was tied back tight against her skull, her granite features sharp with censure as she took in Valin's healed appearance. His leg had been splinted with something she'd cobbled together, but the shattered bone beneath his flesh was no longer strictly bone—now made of the same metal as Zefir's wing-bones.

"You crashed my greatest creation," she said sharply.

The headache that had been plaguing him for months—ever since the crash—wormed its way behind his eye. Courtesy of breaking the microcog communication device in his ear. "Must we have this conversation again, Inventrix?"

His tone was more than impertinent. He should be bowing to the leader of the Clan, for she could very easily send him back to being a second-level techworker, or worse, a protein-vat cleaner, or waste disposal.

Zefir, having curled into a sleepy repose in the massive cavern, raised his head at the tone. Quicksilver eyes regarded them both as he canted his spiked head to the side, like a hound catching wind of something.

"You failed," she stated.

"I told him to level off but he insisted—"

"You are his Navigator." The Inventrix lifted another pot of the pseudo-metallic gel as she made her way to Zefir's side.

Valin held his stance, spine stiff at attention. "You Inventrix gave him a will. If you desired a tractable machine, you could've made another ornithopter. I'll not order him about as if he has no choice in the matter."

"He's a child, Valin." She smeared a test strip of the new pseudo metallic goo over Zefir's brass hide. "Impulsive. And yet you let him run wild."

"Mother," the dragon said, bumping his soft, smooth nose into the Inventrix's chest. "I'll listen to Valin, I promise. Honest. Only...don't take him away from me. I...couldn't bear it."

"Look at what he did to you, you silly child." The Inventrix gestured.

All along the dragon's flank ran a long tear in the smooth brass flesh, and as Valin crossed his arms, the Inventrix smeared more of the gel over the healing—he had no other word for it—flesh. Even as he watched the edges of the tear started to stitch back together; a new concoction then, for the others had yet to work completely. Valin flinched every time he saw the damage—it was his fault.

Zefir would normally lower his head at such words from his creator, but he formed his brass neck into a stiff S-curve, trying his best to look imperious. "No, Mother. Look at what I did to him. He's my Navigator, and I almost..." The dragon's throat bobbed—the second-level techwork in Valin was still fascinated by that—and Zefir's neck curled downward, head hung. "I almost...lost him."

Valin could no longer remain so far away, and he walked over to pat Zefir on his neck. "Still here, Zef."

The dragon chuffed, his wings unfurling slightly; either a sign of impatience, or of worry. Very likely both. Valin could see the repair to the torn membranes had completely 'healed.'

"There now," Valin said gently. "I named you after the wind. And the wind always does what?"

Zefir's animal-like mouth curled into a strange smile. "Catches your feet. And we'll always catch each other."

The Inventrix's eyes narrowed in interest at them both, studying the interplay between them. She continued to smear more of the goo on the dragon's brass hide, and Zefir hissed, his warm steam-like breath puffing. "Ow, Mother."

"That means it's working, child. So hush." She eyed the healing flesh with an inventor's unnerving intensity. "You'll be able to fly soon, but I'm keeping you from our next strafe. Your first and only instance of battle made it clear you're not ready to fly as protection for the thopter-bombers."

That pricked Valin's pride. "The Wheelteeth had three times our number. We couldn't hold them off."

The Inventrix looked down her nose at him, eyes gleaming. "I created him to be able to fly circles around the Wheelteeth's ketch-gryphons. They're one-third the size of him. And built with their poor forges. Brittle as glass those ones."

Valin crossed his arms, furious now, a posture one didn't dare hold in her presence. "The Wheelteeth Inventrix hasn't invented anything new in years, it's true, but her techworkers churn out gryphons faster than anything. There were too many. And will be again."

Her eyes flashed. "You, dear boy, don't know how to handle the brilliant creature I gave you. He can tear through them all. Unleash him properly and you can—"

"Only a moment ago you called me a fool for not reigning in his wild ways," Valin spat.

Her voice raised, "I said properly." She inhaled slowly through her nose, once again cold and in control. "His wildness is for battle, his sentience for reacting faster than any normal mechanical—"

Zefir's rumbling baritone lifted enough to shake a few of the glass beakers on his mother's lab table. "No one asked me what I believe I'm for, or how I think I'm to act. Don't I have a say?"

Valin noticed the dragon's brass flesh grew warmer. Angry then. The massive wings fluttered, held stiffly upon his back as if the dragon would launch himself up and away at any moment.

"Isn't that what you told me?" Zefir demanded. "That I can adapt and make decisions on my own? Whether or not I wanted to fight, because if I loved the people enough, I would make a decision to protect them and our home...or choose to go elsewhere? But the choice was mine, you said."

Valin tried hard to keep his face neutral, but a proud smile curled his lips. Not such a child as you think, Inventrix.

A long sigh from the Inventrix. For the first time Valin saw how weary she looked, how the endless fighting between the Clans had slowed her. She looked sick, but not in body. "Aye, Zefir. You speak rightly. And your choice, my little one?"

"To fight." The word echoed in the cavern. "For Valin. For you. For the Clan."

"For yourself?" the Inventrix asked quietly.

"For home." Zefir rose, his long, blade-like claws clicking on the stone floor. His wings swept out and gathered both of them closer with astonishing gentleness, until Valin was pressed against the dragon's neck, and the Inventrix was squeezed against Zefir's broad chest. The Inventrix closed her eyes, as if drinking in the moment with her inventor's heightened senses, before she opened them again.

The Inventrix spoke, her voice softer than Valin had ever heard, "I'll install a new diaphragm-ballonet so you can fly higher. Practice your maneuvers with care, listen to your Navigator, and I'll put you back on flight duty, little one."

"Ha!" the dragon crowed, bumping his massive face against his creator. "I'm the little one?"

Her eyes were earnest as she said, "You'll always be the little one to me."

Silence passed as Zefir's wings squeezed her closer. Thumping the dragon's chest with a broad palm, she blustered, "Gah! Enough. I've things to do."

She extricated herself from the dragon's wings, moved with precision to the exit, once again stiff backed and chin raised, ever the cold leader of the Cog Clan.

#

Inventrix-types were bred for their genius, Valin mused, and many of them, while capable leaders—bred for that along with their heightened sensory perception—didn't interact with others on a personal level, both out of choice and necessity.

But the Inventrix's interactions with Zefir were different. And he believed that disturbed the leader of the Cog Clan. For their kind, emotions other than an all-consuming passion for their techwork were muted so that logic and cunning reigned.

But Zefir was one of her creations. And her creation, quite of his own volition, had called her "Mother" upon awakening for the first time.

Valin understood the confusion only too well.

He came to her security door, his mind expanding to take in the codes that would unlock it. Hmm, interesting. She sought to stretch his techworking abilities this time, and he had to replace several of the cogs with ones from the upper locks to decode it. Silently, it slid open and he found her hunched over her lab table, writing notes.

Without raising her eye, she barked, "Yes, Navigator?"

Zefir was out stretching his repaired hide, flying lazy, low-altitude laps over the farmland. And so Valin could speak with the Inventrix. Alone.

"I think," he began, steadying himself, "you should find another Navigator for Zefir."

Her eye didn't raise. She continued to write.

Valin didn't need to ask if she'd heard. Likely she could hear the rapid, uneasy thump of his heart, the sick-feeling gurgling in the pit of his stomach. But this was for Zefir's own good. The dragon would be better off with a more experienced Nav...with someone else. Even if Valin would be a second-level techworker again, huddled in the forge caves with no hope of advancement.

Zef deserved better.

Still, the Inventrix ignored him.

"Perhaps, pick Kerlan," he said, his voice dropping low with the eerie silence. "She's a brilliant thopter Nav. Or maybe, Quarethstra. He's—"

"Not you." The scratch of her pen nib on the paper seemed overly loud.

"That's the point, Inventrix," he said, some heat in his tone.

She waved him away. "I've no time for your self-doubt, Valin. God o' the Forge, I hate it when you're predictable. I'd even timed just when you'd approach me almost down to the minute, the variance being that it took you thirty second less time to crack the code than I anticipated. Your predictability makes you—simple. Boring."
                                                   
He stood taller, clenching his gloved fists, feeling the creak of leather. "If I'm so simple why did you give him to me to fly?"

She switched to a pencil and began sketching her design. Whatever madness was upon the page riveted her gaze to it. "I didn't."

"Ten hells," he cursed. Even that wouldn't take her eye from her work. "You chose me because I passed your test."

"I allowed you the chance, because you were unpredictable and undisciplined enough to pass my test, yes. Though bred for low-level work, you're remarkably wild. And if you're not as intelligent as I believe, and I must spell it out for you, boy," at this she raised her cold eyes, "then perhaps Zefir chose the wrong person."

Zefir chose. Not the Inventrix. The squirming feeling inside intensified. "That's why you wouldn't fly him yourself. He didn't chose you."

"Welcome my dear imbecile to the conversation." She shrugged. "There were many other reasons I would make a poor Nav for him. And why you fit well. Though, if you're too much of a coward to continue, then perhaps you're right. You don't deserve to be a Navigator. Much less Zefir's."

The Inventrix ignored him once again and he slammed his hand down over her ink, which spilled and went scattering over the page. "I'm no coward."

Valin could hear the sound of wing-beats and was almost sick, the sensation inside so much like...betrayal? Maybe it was cowardice.

"Tell him, Inventrix, that someone else is better as his Nav. Someone who'll keep him safe."

From the open mouth of the cavern, the massive cog-doors open to the mountain breeze, Zefir alighted on the edge, looking refreshed. Happy.

"There is no safe, not even if you keep him out of battle," the Inventrix said quietly. "Though if he's destroyed, it's unlikely I can build another. And even if I do, it won't be the same creature."

Zefir trotted on his four legs, still graceful, though it appeared he should be ungainly on the ground. "Valin! My side feels better and we need to practice. Hop on!"

Valin's mouth dried, and his tongue scraped over the ridges on the roof of his mouth. "I-I can't. Another is to be your Navigator."

The stricken look on the dragon's mobile face was enough to make Valin turn around. Yes, like a perfect coward.

"Wait!" thundered the dragon desperately. "No, Mother. You won't take him from me! He's my Navigator. I swear that I'll not let another near my controls, I swear it!" And the dragon's voice grew thinner, "Valin...don't go. We can fly together. Like the wind."

Valin couldn't turn around. His chest felt constricted. "I must go."

The dragon bounded behind him, and Valin felt himself plucked up into large, strong brass fingers, the sword-claws enclosing him like a cage. Waddling on his hind legs, Zefir took Valin toward the dragon's favored resting place, a small divot in the worn stone. Setting him down gently, Zefir whirled around toward his mother, who was still otherwise engaged, tail flicking.

"You said I could choose, Mother. And I did." Quicksilver eyes gleamed like heated mercury. "I won't choose again."

She lifted her gaze to Valin. Weighing. Judging. "It's Valin's choice, child. Not mine. Or yours."

Though the words stuck in his throat, Valin croaked, "I've chosen...not to be your Navigator, Zefir."

The shock on that brass, animated face-snout was almost comical in its childlike innocence. The hurt in those mercurial eyes too pure, too genuine, as if it were the first time that emotion had ever been felt. A low mournful sound rumbled from Zefir's chest, and the Inventrix cocked her head, as if listening to the microcogs within grinding out of alignment.

"No," the dragon whispered. "You're lying." Then as he bared his knife-like teeth, he roared, "You lie!"

Valin shook his head. How to make Zefir understand? It was for his own good.

Before Valin could begin to explain, those brass spiked brows lowered, turning quicksilver eyes into hateful slits. Valin opened his mouth, but Zefir drew in a breath and bellowed out an ear-shattering roar—half anger, half pain. Even the Inventrix paused in her new obsession to hold her ink splattered hands over her ears. And though only the warm steam of Zefir's breath had ever poured forth from his nostrils, Valin saw true flame flicker from Zefir's open mouth.

Zefir let loose a warbling roar, bounded around him, and without spreading his wings launched himself from the laboratory cave. Valin counted his rapid heartbeats, knowing how long a drop it was until the dragon would need to lift himself back to the sky, or to shatter on the crags below. Zefir couldn't fly at higher altitudes without a Navigator, but he could coast.

"Hmm," the Inventrix said, and Valin barely heard it through his ringing ears. "It appears as if at least one of you is the child."

Valin turned to stalk out of the laboratory, telling himself that he didn't need to hear the earth-shaking cries that pounded against the mountainside.

Read Part 3: Flying Alone

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